Why I Left McKinsey, Part 1

This is my 2 article series on why I left McKinsey.

One of the most frequent questions that I get is why I left McKinsey. Until now, I’ve been hesitant to address this in-depth – mostly because I didn’t feel it was relevant for what I was doing with Management Consulted, but also because I didn’t want to be perceived as a naysayer.

However, I think my story has valuable lessons for people entering the field, and for those that are currently working at a top firm.

In article #1, I’ll explain why I left and dive into what I perceive to be McKinsey (and generally speaking, the consulting industry’s) shortcomings for me personally. That’s important to keep in mind.

In article #2, I’ll dig into why I loved working there and the general benefits of a management consulting background.

I enjoyed my time at McKinsey, and wouldn’t have done it any differently. I actually tried leaving the company earlier than I did, but am glad in hindsight that I was persuaded against it.

There were 3 main reasons why I left – my entrepreneurial bug, a lack of interaction with customers/end users, and the service-oriented nature of the business.

Let’s dig into each of these.

1. An entrepreneurial bug

The interesting thing is that in school, I didn’t consider myself entrepreneurial. There were several half-assed attempts to start the occasional student group or business idea which never got far.

Instead, I was very much an “organization guy” – spending years at various organizations to achieve leadership positions in everything from SURJ (an undergraduate research publication) to student government.

I think a lot of people in life figure out what they want to do as a series of “anti-experiences”. In my case, working at several big companies (Google, Credit Suisse, McKinsey) taught me that I definitively did not want to work at a big company as a long-term career.

There were both mature reasons for that (the slow pace, the inefficient work processes, the lack of created value going into my own pocket) as well as immature reasons (having the occasional uninspiring boss, the 7am wake up times, the business casual dress code).

Regardless, my “anti-experiences” convinced me to start a company. That’s how I caught the entrepreneurial bug.

Oh, it also didn’t hurt that I loved technology, and in particular, the web. I wrote my first HTML website in 6th grade, and would often stay up at night reading HTML training manuals (don’t mention this to my future girlfriend).

2. Lack of consumer focus

Management consulting is at its core B2B. It may touch consumers indirectly (for example, when you’re consulting for a large consumer-packaged goods company), but your primary focus is delivering value to other companies.

This in itself is not a bad thing, but my passion is in working with consumers…and in most projects, we rarely interacted with them, if at all.

On one project, we needed to understand the behavior of small and medium-sized businesses (in particular, restaurants) and their purchasing behavior – so we spent a lot of time interviewing restaurant owners and managers and talking about their customer experiences.

On another project, we were helping a large yellow-book advertising business streamline their debt collection practices – so we spent a lot of time analyzing call-center employees and their interaction with customers.

That’s about as close as I got.

3. Consulting is a service, not a product

I use these terms loosely, but the key distinction to me is whether the outcome is repetitive or incremental.

For example, a barber is in a service industry – each outcome (the completed haircut) is repetitive. Facebook is a product business – the “Newsfeed” feature that was released is incremental and builds upon the existing Facebook website.

Consulting at its core is a service business. Every project is in many ways a new beginning – you go through the same process to pitch potential clients, scope a project, recruit a team, and solve the problem(s).

The output is remarkably similar across projects – generally a mixture of Microsoft Word memos and Powerpoint decks of findings delivered in presentations to client executives.

In fact, a favorite partner of mine once said, “we’re masters at reinventing the wheel”.

In addition, because you are an advisor and not responsible for execution, sometimes your work may be totally ignored – a .ppt file stored in some company intranet folder to be referenced 5 years later when the new CEO asks for a review of strategic options (“Oh, I remember we hired McKinsey a long time ago…let me see if I can dig up their stuff”)

To be clear, this doesn’t mean that there aren’t incremental aspects of the business – many of which I touch upon below (such as the accumulated knowledge base, the client relationships, etc).

However, what I like about being in a product business is its primarily incremental nature – it’s like building your own house and then renovating it over time.

With consulting, I felt as if I were renting an apartment, decorating it to my tastes, and then moving on 6 months later to a new apartment only to begin the process again.

These are the 3 main reasons. Of course, there are small nits – sometimes, I felt like a kid running around acting like an adult – it was tough pretending I knew something about life insurance marketing when I’d been on the project only one week, sitting across from executives 15 years my senior who had spent their professional lives focused on the problem.

There are always the engagement managers who manage workload poorly, the clients who have unpredictable and poorly defined demands, etc

But these are all small problems that aren’t unique to consulting, and weren’t the main contributors for my exiting McKinsey and moving on to start a company.

Hope that helps clarify. Please see part 2 (when it’s out) for reasons why I loved McKinsey, and why I would do it all over again.

Anything I said not make sense? Anything you disagree with? Please comment below!

Thinking about leaving the management consulting field but unsure what’s next? A Power Half Hour will help you define what will be a great exit opportunity for you and how to achieve success in your next venture.